Tuesday, August 14, 2007

DAY 14: Amazing Stories - "Ghost Train" & "The Mission" (1985)

By the mid-1980's Steven Spielberg had become more than just another director. He had become an institution. Many of the films directed and/or produced by him were among the highest-grossing of all time and his own production company Amblin--named after his amatuer short film--allowed him to develop projects not only for himself to direct but for other filmmakers. Furthermore, as with Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney before him, "Spielberg" had come to represent a certain kind of product: namely, slickly produced, predominately family-friendly fanatasy entertainment. Spielberg's latest venture would fit into that category quite nicely.

In 1985 Spielberg returned to the medium that had halped launch his career: television. He produced a Twilight Zone-like anthology series called Amazing Stories (inspired by a popular science fiction magazine Spielberg loved as a kid). Although the show was nominated for 12 Emmys Awards (resulting in 5 wins) it was unfortunately not a hit and NBC chose not to renew it after the contractual two seasons were up. This was particularly distressing to me as I loved the show when I was a kid. To this day I can hum the John Williams-composed main theme (while seeing the computer-generated opening credits sequence in my head) and like to revisit several of my favorite episodes ("The Main Attraction," "Mummy Daddy," "The Sitter", "Dorothy and Ben" and the Brad Bird-directed cartoon "Family Dog") which I still think hold up rather well tweny years later. My reason, however, for including Amazing Stories as part of "31 Days of Spielberg," is that two episodes (the debut "Ghost Train" and the hour-long "The Mission") were directed by Spielberg himself and therefore are worth a quick look.

"GHOST TRAIN" (broadcast 9/29/85): While living in a house in New Jersey a young Steven Spielberg would lie in his bed at night and hear train whistles blowing in the distance. Spielberg channeled that memory into this story about an old man named Daniel Globe (Robert Blossom of Spielberg's Close Encounters and the upcoming Always) who as a child innocently caused a terrible train wreck that took the lives of everyone on board. Now living with his grown son, his daughter-in-law and his grandson (Lukas Haas), all of whom affectionately call him "Old Pa," Daniel awaits the night that the train will return to finish what it had left undone 75 years earlier. The problem is that the house in which they live is built right over where the old tracks used to be. In the episode's spectacular climax the Highball Express number 407 crashes right through the family's living room and takes Old Pa away to his final destination.

Blossom's gentle, sensetive performance as the grandfather is both sweet and touching (particularly when he recalls the day of the accident with great emotion) and Lukas Haas, fresh off his starring role opposite Harrison Ford in Witness, plays the loving, imaginative grandson. The characters of the mother and father, unfortunately, aren't nearly as strong or interesting. Consequently, the relationship between the old man and the boy is the real heart of the story. The episode was shot with Spielberg's typical warmth and gloss (E.T.'s Allen Daviau served as cinematographer) and John Williams provides a whimsical score but wisely chooses to leave the show's signature set piece, the exciting finale where the train bears down on the house, unscored. The very least that can be said about "Ghost Train" is that it is far superior to the segment Spielberg produced for the Twilight Zone movie.

"THE MISSION" (broadcast 10/3/85): The second and final episode Spielberg directed for Amazing Stories is not only better than "Ghost Train" it's actually better than a few of his feature films. Based on a short story by Spielberg called "Round Trip," this hour long episode (the only one of the first season) written by Color Purple screenwriter Menno Meyjes, involves a WWII bomber flight crew who encounter a major problem when one of their gunners (a cartoonist named Jonathan whom they consider their "lucky charm") gets trapped in the plastic turret on the underside of the plane. With the landing gear refusing to come down and the plane rapidly running out of fuel, the pilot knows he's going to have to to bring the plane down as soon as possible on its belly but in the process Jonathan will be crushed. At the last possible second, something miraculous occurs that saves Jonathan's life.

"The Mission" is notable for several reasons. First, it features a few soon-to-be major stars. Kevin Costner plays the ship's captain, a young Keifer Sutherland plays radio operator "Static" (whose real name is Arnold, a reference to Spielberg's father) and Casey Siemaszko (of Stand By Me and NYPD Blue) plays the pivotal role of Jonathan. Second, it gives Spielberg an opportunity to revisit one of his favorite themes: World War II. Indeed, although it has a touch of fantasy in it, "The Mission" has a very serious tone--at times almost unbearably tense (aided in no small part by Williams great score)--throughout most of it and marks Spielberg's first dramatic handling the subject matter professionally (1941 being a comedy and Raiders being primarily an action film). Although, like "Ghost Train" the plot ultimately builds to its fanciful climax (which I don't have the heart to give away here), the real emotional core of the story is the comraderie between the men on the plane. The scene where they all rub Jonathan's head for the last time is very moving. One can clearly see Spielberg's developing respect for the subject matter, an attutude that would ultimately culminate in his combat masterpiece Saving Private Ryan.

Since part of Spielberg's motivation in creating Amazing Stories was to bring big-budget cinematic sensibilities to the small screen (an endeavor that might seem strange to young people today for whom there is essentially no difference between TV and movies), it only makes sense that he would helm a few of the individual episodes himself (while others were handled by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, Danny Devito and Marty Scorsese) and while they may not perhaps be among his best work, they are nonetheless very strong material for television and worth checking out for any Spielberg completist (the first season is available on DVD).



TOMORROW: The Color of Spielberg

12 comments:

Megan said...

Damian I am only on day 9 so give me a chance to catch up. Someone named Jennifer posted a link on ew. Kiss her for me for steering me to your blog -- you write well. I will catch up, if I can restrain myself from posting on all the previous films...

Joe Valdez said...

I loved this series as a kid as well. I didn't care at all for Ghost Train but share your sentiments about The Mission, which is vintage Spielberg all the way and better than several of his films.

Some might consider this show a failed experiment, but I'm not aware of another TV series that attracted the likes of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Brad Bird and Joe Dante to contribute episodes.

As soon as Amazing Stories was announced, CBS got the idea to remake The Twilight Zone and ABC came up with something called The George Burns Comedy Week as their anthology series. If nothing else, that demonstrates how influential Spielberg had already become in the industry.

Bird's Family Dog is my favorite episode.

Adam Ross said...

Actually, only the first season of Amazing Stories is on DVD. Over a year after Season 1 was released, there has been no announcement of plans for Season 2, which is a huge disappointment because of all the quality episodes contained in that season (Family Dog, The Cabbage Man).

David J. Loehr said...

I've been enjoying the 31 days. Great work; it's one of my first clicks of the day right now. Just wanted to throw in a little correction about anthology shows...

CBS had been developing the revival of Twilight Zone for some time, stretching back to the movie, and it was only the big news of Amazing Stories pickup that led them to commit. And The George Burns Comedy Week was also at CBS, largely as an excuse to try out pilot ideas.

That was also the year NBC tried to bring back Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well, mainly as a companion to Amazing Stories. Two were gone within the year, and the other two followed close behind, which is a shame. There should still be room on television for good anthologies.

Cinephile said...

I really liked the restaging of the Hitchcock show, and was disappointed when it was cancelled. The revamped Twilight Zone had great moments (Bruce Willis's turn in the adaptation of Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday" is particularly impressive), but I netflixed some of the other episodes a couple of years ago, and they don't hold up well.

All of which brings me to Amazing Stories, a show I remember with a mixture of fond nostalgia and aching disappointment. It aired when I was 12, and prepared to love anything with spielberg's name on it. I guess that sense of hope and expectation is what doomed the show for me: it felt slight and sentimental and a little hokey, especially from the guy who gave us two Indiana Jones films, E.T., etc. My favorite ep was actually Clint Eastwood's, "A Rose for Emily" which I thought was understated and touching.

Would I like the show more now, knowing that my expectations were a bit unfair? Possibly. All I know for sure is that Damian's once-again excellent essay makes me want to rent the shows again to see. Thanks for another great piece, Damian!

Dan Coyle said...

Ah, Amazing Stories. A series I have extremely mixed feelings about. Most of it was, well, VERY NOT GOOD, but every so often there'd be an expertly done gem- the Gregory Hines episode about a psychic who encounters a real murderer by brushing against him, for one. And the nail-biting "You Gotta Believe Me" with Charles Durning as an old man plagued by visions of a plane crash that's about to happen only a few hours from now.

Dear God, Spielberg directed "Ghost Train"? I thought that was one of the worst things I'd ever seen, and I was SEVEN!

"The Mission" is a different beast. I do agree that it's much better than some of Spielberg's films. The climax, however, just boots the viewer out of the realism of the story- up until then it's been one of the least fantastic things he's ever done, and unbearably grim- though it's not that the ending is unearned, but THAT kind of ending is just wrong (especially after Sutherland's breakdown during his failed attempt to put Siezmasko out of his misery), and speaks to a fatal flaw I see in Spielberg- his incessant need to make everyone not happy, but SUPER-happy- to make sure the crowd goes out smiling or feeling a bit better than they did, whatever the cost to storytelling or honesty.

But the moments right before that climax, where Siezmasko is tearfully scribbling what he knows is the last thing he'll ever draw, remains, after 22 years, one of the most affecting scenes of Spielberg's career. A masterstroke between director and actor.

Piper said...

I purchased the first season of Amazing Stories for the sole reason of being able to show my son "The Mission." It plays for me very much like a stage performance and it has a bit of Spielberg sappiness but it's still good TV. And that ending scene is magic.

Damian said...

Actually, only the first season of Amazing Stories is on DVD.

Oops. My bad. Coulda sworn I saw the second season out at some point. Guess not. Oh well. The error has been corrected. Thank, Adam. :)

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